Obama outsources teachable moment

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Rev Sharpton at a news conference in St Louis, Missouri, on the death of black teenager Michael Brown. Mr Obama deputised Rev Sharpton to be the "the country's most prominent voice on race relations" at the very moment when he could have helped move the country forward on an issue close to his heart. PHOTO: REUTERS


    Aug 28, 2014

    Obama outsources teachable moment

    AS HE has grown weary of Washington, United States President Barack Obama has shed parts of his presidency, like dying petals falling off a rose.

    He left the explaining and selling of his signature health-care legislation to former president Bill Clinton.

    He outsourced Congress to his former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, in the first term, and now does not bother to outsource it at all.

    He left schmoozing, as well as a spiralling Iraq, to Vice-President Joe Biden.

    Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, comes across as more than a message meister.

    As Mr Obama floats in the firmament, Mr Rhodes seems to make foreign policy even as he is spinning it.

    But the one thing it was impossible to imagine, back in the giddy days of the 2009 inauguration, as Americans basked in their open-mindedness and pluralism, was that the first African-American President would outsource race.

    He saved his candidacy in 2008 after the "pastor disaster" with Jeremiah Wright by giving a daring speech asserting that racial reconciliation could never be achieved until racial anger, on both sides, was acknowledged.

    Half-black, half-white, a son of Kansas and Africa, he searchingly and sensitively explored America's ebony-ivory divide.

    He dealt boldly and candidly with race in his memoirs, Dreams From My Father.

    "In many parts of the South," he wrote, "my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way; in the most sophisticated of Northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother's predicament into a back-alley abortion - or at the very least to a distant convent that could arrange for adoption. Their very image together would have been considered lurid and perverse."

    Now, the professor in the Oval Office has spurned a crucial teachable moment.

    He dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson, and deputised Al Sharpton, detaching himself at the very moment when he could have helped move the country forward on an issue close to his heart.

    It is another perverse reflection of his ambivalent relationship with power.

    He was willing to lasso the moon when his candidacy was on the line, so why not do the same at a pivotal moment for his presidency and race relations?

    Instead, he anoints a self-promoting TV pundit with an incendiary record as "the White House's civil rights leader of choice", as The New York Times put it, vaulting Reverend Sharpton into "the country's most prominent voice on race relations."

    It seems oddly retrogressive to make Rev Sharpton the official go-between with Ferguson's black community, given that his history has been one of fomenting racial divides, while Mr Obama's has been one of soothing them.

    The MSNBC host has gone from The Bonfire Of The Vanities to White House Super Bowl parties.

    As a White House official told Politico's Glenn Thrush, who wrote on the 59-year-old provocateur's consultation with senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett on Ferguson: "There's a trust factor with the Reverend from the Oval Office...He gets it, and he's got credibility in the community that nobody else has got."

    Rev Sharpton has also been such a force with New York's mayor, Bill de Blasio, in the furore over the chokehold death of a black Staten Island man that the New York Post declared him the de facto police commissioner.

    The White House and City Hall do not seem concerned about his US$4.7 million (S$5.8 million) in outstanding debt and liens in federal and state tax records, reported by The Post.

    Once, civil rights leaders drew their power from their unimpeachable moral authority. Now, being a civil rights leader can be just another career move.

    Mr Thrush noted that Rev Sharpton - "once such a pariah that Clinton administration officials rushed through their ribbon-cuttings in Harlem for fear he'd show up and force them to, gasp, shake his hand" - has evolved from agitator to insider since his demagoguing days, when he falsely accused a white New York prosecutor and others of gang-raping a black teenager, Tawana Brawley, and sponsored protests against a clothing store owned by a white man in Harlem, after a black sub-tenant who sold records was threatened with eviction.

    A deranged gunman burnt down the store, leaving eight people dead.

    Rev Sharpton also whipped up anti-Semitic feelings during the Crown Heights riots in 1991, denouncing Jewish "diamond dealers" importing gems from South Africa after a Hasidic Jew ran a red light and killed a seven-year-old black child.

    Amid rioting, with some young black men shouting "Heil Hitler", a 29-year-old Hasidic Jew from Australia was stabbed to death by a black teenager.

    Now, Rev Sharpton tells Mr Thrush: "I've grown to appreciate different roles and different people, and I weigh words a little more now. I've learnt how to measure what I say."

    Mr Obama has muzzled himself on race and made Rev Sharpton his chosen instrument - two men joined in pragmatism at a moment when idealism is needed.

    We cannot expect the President to do everything. But we can expect him to do something.